New Orleans Saints cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Corey White celebrate Lewis’ interception againt the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17 of the 2013 regular season.(Photo credit: Crystal LoGuidice/USA TODAY Sports).
When Rob Ryan arrived in New Orleans early last spring, everyone knew that he was bringing change with him. Popular opinion was that he would return the defense to its ways under Gregg Williams from 2009 to 2011, featuring frequent exotic blitzes to create pressure and stellar safety play to protect plays over the top. But that thought was off the mark; Ryan did not call blitzes often in 2013, and he used a coverage scheme completely different from what was employed by Steve Spagnuolo in 2012.
Spagnuolo generally operated out of a base coverage scheme with four defensive backs on the field; two safeties and two corner backs. He also relied on exclusively zone coverage where defensive backs did not make any contact with opposing receivers until they had already begun running their routes, leading to an NFL-worst 4,772 yards ceded through the air by year’s end. Ryan had a Herculean task on his hands to improve this unit, and given the results his previous teams had gotten there was not much hope that he would succeed.
Ryan proved all of the doubters wrong by building a secondary that looks to compete with the vaunted Legion of Boom of the Seattle Seahawks for the title of best in football in 2014. In 2013, Ryan’s defense gave up only 3,387 passing yards and finished the regular season ranked second-best in the NFL. Much of this had to do with the personnel used by Ryan and how he used his players.
Ryan moved from the “base” defensive formation of four linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs to the “nickel” formation of three linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. His most common personnel grouping was a three-safety set of rookie Kenny Vaccaro, veteran Malcolm Jenkins, and vastly underrated backup Rafael Bush with free agent pickup Keenan Lewis and either second-year man Corey White or (before his career-ending injury) fan favorite Jabari Greer on the outside. This formation gave the Saints great versatility in that they would almost always have a numbers advantage on passing plays. Not only that, but he mixed his coverage types between zone and press to accommodate his players’ strengths.
One player who performed better in 2013 than the year prior was second-year cornerback Corey White, who played as the Saints’ “nickel” (third) corner. Like most of the Saints defensive backs, White was maligned in 2013 and allowed a terrible completion percentage of 77.78% (35 of 45 passes completed), or one completion every eight coverage snaps. He had a passes defended percentage of only 6.67% (two passes broken up, one interception on 45 targets). However, White showed great potential in 2013 under Ryan, decreasing his completion percentage by more than 20% to bring it down to 56.14% (quarterbacks were 32 of 57 when targeting him) and increased his passes defended percentage to 10.53% (five passes broken up, one interception). White is definitely a player on the up-and-up entering training camp and should continue to flourish and grow under Ryan and Defensive Backs Coach Wesley “Crime Dog” McGriff despite stiff competition for his roster spot.
Overall the Saints back seven (linebackers and defensive backs) performed well in coverage, particularly the cornerbacks who allowed a total of 54.41% of passes to be completed (111 of 204). This was a decrease of 7.67% from 2012’s 62.08% completed. Much of this was due to the excellence of Lewis, a Pro Bowl snub who finished the regular season with a completion percentage of 55.9% (38 of 68) and tied for sixth in the NFL in interceptions with four. Lewis has looked even better in minicamps and organized team activities thus far and is on a self-declared campaign to receive his first Pro Bowl nod in 2014. In my opinion, there is a very real chance that three of the four Saints’ starting defensive backs (Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro, and Keenan Lewis) could make it to the Pro Bowl. They have openly challenged the Legion of Boom for the claim of best passing defense in football; now they have the pieces to make that vision a reality. Opening day against the Atlanta Falcons can’t come soon enough.